Spirit Quest

Spirit Quest

Honour killings and the question of compassion and justice

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective
 
Guilty as charged! 
 
It didn’t take long for the jury to return  to the courtroom to announce their verdict that the Shafia trio were guilty of first degree murder. The judge thanked them and commended them. They had after all put their lives on hold for months to listen intently to the defence and the crown as they sought to make their case.
 
The response from the public was equally positive. “Justice has been served!” the press shouted from the front page of every paper. Those crowded into the court room, others standing outside in front of the historic Frontenac County Court House in the City of Kingston, as well as the Canadian public through the instantaneous media reportage, also agreed with the verdict. Those that sided with the defence counsel, if any, kept it to themselves.
 
I also agreed, for the issue was not just about the taking of human lives, those of their own family, but it was also an attack specifically on women. 
 
John Dominic Crossan, one of the foremost biblical scholars, a founder of the famous, or infamous, Jesus Seminar that dared to examine the Gospel scriptures to determine what in fact were the genuine words of Jesus, concluded his book The Birth of Christianity: Discovering what actually happened after the execution of Jesus, with this striking statement:
 
“Compassion, no matter how immediately necessary or profoundly human, cannot substitute for justice, for the right of all to equal dignity  and integrity of life. Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice  are often crucified. “  
 
This is most evident in the events of our time that many who fight for justice against the brutality of dictators in Libya, Egypt and Syria and elsewhere pay with their lives.  But compassion and justice must not be separated . To be compassionate requires a passion for justice. To be just requires one to be compassionate.
 
The cry for revenge, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”  often hides behind a demand for “closure.” The offended frequently find it impossible to be at peace without knowing that a price has been paid by the offenders.
 
Thankfully in this country we have done away with capital punishment, which in fact is not a punishment but irreversible retribution. The Shafia trio will continue to live for the next 25 years in solitary confinement at great cost to the taxpayer, some will be quick to point out.  Nor will their assets be liquidated. There are a significant number in our land who would wish for the reinstitution of the death penalty. Some of them sit on the benches of parliament.
 
It was a heinous crime, without a doubt. Its motivation, if in fact it was an honour killing, has no place in our country — or the world for that matter. The point has to be made, which was underlined by the presiding judge in his sentencing statement, that this was a “twisted form of honour.” and must not be tolerated. A message has been clearly proclaimed.
 
While it is easy to support justice, what of compassion? To be a compassionate society we must insist on justice. However, it is impossible to be just  without being compassionate. 
 
The Latin origin of compassion is com, meaning with, and pati meaning to suffer thus, “to suffer with” is the meaning of the word.  It is relatively easy to  have compassion for those afflicted but incomparably harder to feel sympathy for the afflicters. Dare I ask what is the implication of this for us vis-a-vis the Shafia trio?
 
Can we, dare we, enter into the minds of those who have taken life, to fathom the feelings of those from another tradition? I don’t mean Islam, for it has been frequently pointed out that there is no justification for honour killing in the Qua’ran. Undoubtedly the anger and hatred of Mr. Mohammed Shafia has long roots which we do not share. Only this week it was reported that in Kabul a man strangled his wife because she bore him a second daughter rather than a son, and he felt justified and undoubtedly many joined him in this perverse prejudice.
 
Our task as a just and compassionate society is not only how to suppress such crime but how to change, dare I say, convert the other to a life of compassion. How do we awaken in the perpetrators a sense of their humanity as well as that of others? How do we instill a sense of compassion in the next generations?
 
We have come a long way in transforming our penal institution since the days we became a nation. We still have a long way to go although there are those who continue to  maintain it “is best to lock them up and throw away the keys.” Undoubtedly that adage was mentioned in the crowd watching the “murderers” being led away. Being willing to spend millions on the criminal justice system to apprehend, try and convict  the accused, must also mean that we be willing to seek to change our prisons from dungeons to correctional institutions as we are wont to call them, to move from retributive  to restorative justice.  Our legal system is not merely to deter from crime but to seek to transform those who would do harm for whatever reason. True, it may not be possible in every case but compassion and justice demands that we give it a try.
 
Change has to happen not only to the miscreants but to all of society. I suggest that closure can only be achieved when we make every effort to reform and humanize those who have somehow, by some system, aberant philosophy, tradition or personal experience been dehumanized. We must seek to overcome our longings for revenge, hatred and suspicion for those who are different from ourselves.
 
As we leave the courtyard, put away our papers, turn off the media, we must turn to ourselves and search our spirits about how to be both just and compassionate, to overcome our suspicions and animosities and make a peaceful world for all.
 
I am heartened to sense that there is a Spirit informed by both Love and Justice seeking to work its way through us to touch all of humankind.

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